For as long as there have been wars, animals both large and small have been drafted into military service. From the time honored and traditional to the bizarre and controversial, men have found a variety of uses for animals in the service of the military.
Alexander the Great had Bucephalus, Napoleon had Marengo, the Duke of Wellington had Copenhagen. For centuries and across continents, horses were the most ubiquitous animals in warfare, essential to nomadic warriors and established militaries alike. They carried the feared Huns to Europe, drew the chariots of the Romans and crusaded in the Middle Ages. They participated in revolutions and took bullets in World War I. Technological advances led to their widespread retreat from the front lines, but horses are still used today, mainly by militias like the Janjaweed in Sudan.
War elephants have tusks, a bellowing trumpet of a trunk and can stomp on things. In antiquity, their bulk also allowed them to become mobile fortresses, capable of carrying soldiers and archers on their backs. Nothing could break up a line of infantry or send horses into a panic faster than a charging pack of pachyderms. Elephants comprised the most feared ranks of ancient Indian armies and spread in use through Mesopotamia and parts of the Mediterranean. In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously led an army of North Africans and Iberians and 37 elephants across the Alps and nearly snuffed out the Roman republic. The detachment of elephants proved the centerpiece of a campaign whose tactics would be emulated for centuries to come, even by U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War.
Dolphins and Sea Lions
In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy began studying the hydrodynamics of dolphins to design better torpedoes, ships, and submarines. 20 years later, the Navy began training dolphins to detect and mark underwater mines. Today, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program includes several species of dolphins as well as sea lions that are trained to swim into enclosed spaces and mark enemy frogmen. The Navy made history in 2003 by using marine mammals for the first time in an active war zone. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, teams of minesweeping dolphins cleared the approaches to Iraqi ports in the Persian Gulf, allowing ships with humanitarian aid to reach the Iraqi city of Basra. The dolphins detected and marked several mines, which were removed by Navy bomb-disposal teams.
The use of dogs in warfare dates back to the late antiquity of the Greco-Roman world. Attila the Hun used large Molosser breeds in his campaigns. When the British attacked the Irish, they used dogs to fight, and the Irish in turn used Irish Wolfhounds to attack knights on horseback. In the 20th century, dogs’ duties became more diverse. In World War I, dogs were used to locate wounded soldiers in the trenches and even had their own gas masks. Russian units trained dogs to carry bombs under invading tanks, and many armies used them as messengers. In World War II and Vietnam, scout dogs helped locate the enemy in dense jungles. Today, dogs are used to sniff out explosives and find hidden munitions, while attack dogs accompany many military police units. The U.S. Army assigns each dog a rank, one higher than that of their handler, and when the handler is promoted, the dog is promoted as well.
During World War I and WW II, the U.S. military enlisted more than 200,000 pigeons to conduct surveillance and relay messages. From 1917 to 1957, New Jersey’s Fort Monmouth served as the breeding and training ground for these avian soldiers. The pigeons flew hundreds of miles, averaging speeds of a mile a minute, with messages strapped to their legs in tiny capsules. Historians believe that more than 90% of the missives were delivered successfully. One notable pigeon named Cher Ami (“Dear Friend” in French) flew for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during WW I. He flew 12 important messages before being struck by enemy fire. Despite being shot in the breast and leg, he managed to deliver the message, which was found dangling from his shattered leg. His brave dedication to the mission led to the rescue of 194 soldiers in Major Charles Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion.”
During World War II, the U.S. military considered sending bats to Japan. Of course, these weren’t just any bats, these were incendiary bomb fitted bats. Kamikaze bats. The Army, the Navy and the Marine Corps conducted experiments in the 1940s to see if the flying mammals could be used to start millions of fires across Japan. The project was canceled, and bat bombers were never deployed overseas.
Over 1,900 years ago, Pliny the Elder chronicled a scene in which “the grunting of the hog” terrified the elephants of an invading army. According to contemporary history, Roman legions let pigs loose among elephants.
Tales of combative camels span millennia, from Herodotus to T.E. Lawrence (he of Arabia fame). As the ancient Greek historian tells it, back in the 6th century the Persians’ humped creatures which were used for carrying supplies — were promoted to the front lines to mess with the Lydians’ horses: Cyrus “set the camels opposite the horsemen because the horse has a fear of the camel and cannot endure either to see his form or to scent his smell.” Modern history has its share of cameleers, including the Australians, Britons and New Zealanders who comprised the Imperial Camel Corps, which fought in the Middle East during World War I. Camels, known as ships of the desert for all they can transport, were even imported by the U.S. government in the mid–19th century at the urging of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.